IGBO UKWU MUSEUM TRAGEDY
Igbo Ukwu Museum, run by the Anambra State Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, is one of the few museums owned by a state government in Nigeria; and, like other repositories across the country; Igbo Ukwu Museum has suffered many vicissitudes.
During our visit to Igbo Ukwu, we gathered that Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) officials disconnected this repository about four years ago; however, none could tell what was being owed Nigeria's eternal agents of darkness by the time this disconnection was carried out.
Since 2007, when Igbo Ukwu Museum was disconnected from public electricity supply over nonpayment of bills, the place was still in darkness during our latest visit. Aside lack of electricity, this museum had no source of water, the walls and ceiling showed signs of having soaked up water for months, if not years; and to worsen matters, the ceiling appeared about to collapse.
Founded in 1989, according to some sources, Igbo Ukwu Museum comprises six sections. Sadly, however, the remnants of whatever could be called exhibits here are covered by dust. This was a museum that took off to a flying start only for it to suddenly lose steam: it crash-landed, and would be abandoned for decades. Although series of thefts led to this museum's shut down; want of sustenance from successive Anambra authorities turned the structure to an eye-sore. For at least a dozen years, Igbo Ukwu Museum represented hope aborted; the surroundings were overgrown with weed, the walls were damp and the roofs were practically caving in.
Although a National Museum now operates in Igbo Ukwu, Igbo Ukwu Museum opened decades before an outpost of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) berthed in this town, which is part of Aguata Local Government Area of Anambra State in Nigeria's south-east geopolitical zone.
Year after year; every time we visited Igbo Ukwu, one reflexively gravitated toward the abandoned museum hoping that some rescue effort had somehow commenced, only to discover the place worse than it was the last time we came this way. Interestingly, Mr. D. O. Enemuo, who is Curator of Igbo Ukwu Museum, which stands on Ekwulobia-Nnewi Road; was forever wary of talking; your classic Nigerian civil servant. In any case, we really didn't need any comment from him; for, as the ancient Romans used to say; 'Res ipsa loquitor' (the situation speaks for itself).
Like many other museums in the land, Igbo Ukwu Museum had been targeted by looters; and, over and over, priceless pieces of our national heritage have been successfully made away with. For example; in one attempt, when theft of some objects appeared not to have bothered the authorities too much, as these were mere replicas; the criminal elements had launched another raid, which proved very costly.
It would appear that the first burglary was some sort of dress rehearsal, for Igbo Ukwu Museum eventually lost many original and precious pieces, when the robbers returned for a second helping. These thieves dealt the authorities a telling blow during that second strike, where, in one night's operation, they carted away several original objects including a wooden face mask, believed to be a shrine piece.
A letter signed by the curator, dated 2 February, 2005 and addressed to the paramount ruler of Igbo Ukwu, Igwe Martin Ezeh, reveals that 29 objects were looted from Igbo Ukwu Museum in one fell swoop. A copy of that letter, reference number MOYSC/CD/IM/01/45, was also sent to the president general of Igbo Ukwu Development Union.
Although the authorities did not give any estimate of the worth of the lost items, the museum looters robbed the nation of over N1billion! In deed, as one museum watcher put it; 'We lost billions, because; if you really understand these things, some of them are antiquity; things money can't buy'.
When exactly the burglary was carried out remains unclear; however, the tragedy was discovered on Monday, 10 January, 2005 when workers resumed work after the weekend break. A wooden sculpture of 'Idemili', embellished with a carved python, was among the priceless objects of antiquity carted away by the thieves. 'Idemili' is goddess of the River Idemili, which traverses a vast area of Igbo lands before emptying into the Niger.
'Three chieftaincy swords', a 'ceremonial staff', 'two bronze bells', 'five bronze armlets', five 'ivory bangles' and three 'face masks' were also listed among the looters' haul. According to the curator's memo, the looting was reported to the police and Anambra State commissioner for youth, sports and culture. The police had subsequently dispatched a two-man team to Igbo Ukwu to investigate the incident. The detectives had arrested the museum's security man; however, the detainee was subsequently released on bail after search of his residence revealed nothing incriminating.
Igbo Ukwu Museum's origin could be said to date as far back as to 1939, when Mr. Isaiah Anozie discovered many bronze sculptures, while digging to build a cistern in his compound. The 1939 finds, described as 'unique' and indicating 'a superb level of technical artistry in the Igbo Ukwu forest land' were found to be as old as 1,000 years. The discovery of these ancient artefacts consequently attracted a British archaeologist, Thurstan Shaw to Igbo Ukwu.
Unfortunately, the beauty and excellence of Igbo Ukwu artefacts made these objects the target of cultural property looters and traffickers. Thus, like Bakor, Benin, Esie, Ile-Ife, Nok and other antiquity hubs across Nigeria, Igbo Ukwu artefacts face constant threat of theft. In fact, we gathered that at some point, there were two such incidents at Igbo Ukwu Museum every year.
This is the reason many of the Igbo Ukwu artefacts, later labeled National Treasures, were transferred to Jos Museum and Lagos Museum for safe keeping. Earlier, in 1964, some of the objects had been purchased and subsequently donated to the then Federal Department of Antiquities.
However, Prof Shaw had always campaigned for the return of these objects or their replicas, to Igbo Ukwu. And, apparently in appreciation of his excavation, and other efforts; which yielded global publicity for Igbo Ukwu Art as well as his campaign for the return of Igbo Ukwu objects to the Anambra State tow; Professor Thurstan Shaw was in 1972 honoured with the chieftaincy title of 'Onu n'ekulu ora of Igbo Ukwu' (Global spokesman of Igbo Ukwu).
Subsequent archaeological excavations by Prof Shaw, in 1960 and 1963, threw up more finds in the compounds of the three Anozie brothers, Isaiah, Richard and Jonah. Igbo Jonah is believed to have been an ancient refuse disposal pit, while Igbo Richard was probably a royal burial chamber, more than 1,000 years ago. Igbo Isaiah was a store house of royal regalia, according to a poster; which also bears illustrations of the three brothers, rendered in 1939.
Today, all these objects are gone; apart from a few supposedly stored by the NCMM outside Igbo Ukwu, the rest are in the wilderness as far as Nigeria is concerned. Having lost practically all its precious objects, Igbo Ukwu Museum nowadays boasts largely posters of illustrations. One of the exhibits inside Igbo Ukwu Museum is a painting by Caroline Sassom.
The work is this artist's impression of a reconstruction of a burial chamber discovered at Igbo Richard. Another object is a close-up photograph of broken terra cotta pots. There is also a black and white poster of roughly 18 x 24 inches titled 'Igbo Ukwu Bronzes', with details on Igbo Isaiah, Igbo Richard and Igbo Jonah.
But, when exactly did Igbo Ukwu Museum come into being? And, whose initiative led to its establishment? It is worth noting that Igbo Ukwu Museum began through community effort, even though Anambra State Government came in to support the initiative about a decade later. Two plaques on the wall at this repository shed more light.
A plaque affixed to the wall at the entrance to the reception bears the inscription; 'Igbo Ukwu Museum, Anambra State, Nigeria: To the glory of God, and for the preservation of our Art and Culture, this museum was commissioned on Wednesday, 21st of May, 1997 by His Excellency, the Military Administrator of Anambra State, Group Captain Rufa'i D. Garba'.
Interestingly, however, another plaque at the entrance to the Gallery informs: 'This wing of Igbo Ukwu Museum was built and donated to Igbo Ukwu Development Union on 29th December, 1989 by Sir (Chief) Timothy Chukwubunna Umeweni KSC, 'Ikenga' Igbo Ukwu''.
Hurray! Rescue at last
Although the Anambra State administration under Governor Peter Obi has recorded positive strides in numerous areas through his government's ANIDS (Anambra Integrated Development Strategy) programme, ironically; culture, arguably, the people's strongest point; appeared left behind.
There is no doubt that the Mr. Obi-led government's resources is under strain, given all it has achieved and the many other laudable projects both ongoing and in the pipeline. Agreed, that the scourge of erosion; which threatens to wash most Anambra lands away could be enervating; agreed that the menace of kidnappers has also served to engage Anambra government and its purse; nonetheless, Igbo Ukwu Museum deserves urgent rescue.
Fortunately, after a long night; Igbo Ukwu Museum is on the path to resurrection! During a telephone conversation with the paramount ruler of Igbo Ukwu, Igwe Martin Ezeh aka Idu II, we learnt that rehabilitation of the beleaguered repository had since begun and that re-roofing was nearing completion. Bravo, Governor Peter Obi; and, more grease to your elbow!